The bad old days

Imagine going on the most relaxing vacation, only to return home and find that you’ve been robbed. That’s how Bites felt coming back to the office after two weeks, and hearing some disturbing news out the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff John McGinness doesn’t want the job anymore? Captain Jim Cooper is running to replace him? Old Lou Blanas may be coming back? Somebody call the cops!

OK, maybe robbery is a bit of an exaggeration. But just thinking about Cooper, who has also served on the Elk Grove City Council for a decade, as the county’s top cop is enough to drain much of the reserve of calm and sanguinity that Bites has built up over the last two weeks.

You’d get seriously unrelaxed, too, if you ever had Cooper was in your face trying to intimidate you. Bites has. It was when Cooper was still jail commander. And a heckuva job he was doing.

SN&R had just published a story about transgender inmates who claimed they were victims of harassment, assault and even rape in the downtown jail. This was during a particularly troubled period in the jail’s history—when inmate suicides made regular headlines, inmate medical care was in shambles and the downtown facility was known as “the meanest jail in California.”

Jail commander Cooper was not a fan of the story. And when this reporter visited the jail a couple of months later, on a completely different assignment, Cooper was waiting. He got in close, and flexing his neck muscles just as hard as he could, explained that SN&R was banned from reporting inside the jail “indefinitely.” His right-hand man, an old dude who looked like his eyeballs were about to launch right out of their sockets, came around the other side of Bites, just in case the threat of force hadn’t been obvious.

Cooper said SN&R had been eighty-sixed for printing pictures of transgender inmates in the jail. It is prohibited to take pictures inside the jail without special permission, Cooper explained.

Of course, SN&R hadn’t taken the photos, and instead printed pictures that had been provided by an attorney. Getting a camera into the jail would have been impossible in those days, when it was routine for jail officials to prohibit SN&R reporters from taking a pen and paper on interviews.

Asked to provide any kind of written policy backing up his decision, Cooper flat-out refused. Asked how long the ban would be in effect, he just kind of guffawed and said, “I’ll let you know.” Funny, he still hasn’t called.

Of course, SN&R reporters have been in and out of the jail plenty of times since then. It was just one of the many petty and illegal things that would come and go in those days.

For a while, sheriff brass arbitrarily required both Sacramento Bee and SN&R reporters to present questions in writing, and in SN&R’s case would take days or even weeks to respond to simple questions, while TV and radio reporters were given much easier access.

And it wasn’t just Cooper’s doing. It was the big boss, Sheriff Lou Blanas, who set the tone.

Things got so bad that even the county board of supervisors had to acknowledge, eventually, that something was seriously wrong in the department, though nothing changed until Blanas left. Since then, a sheriff’s inspector general office has been created to provide at least some public oversight for the department.

And McGinness, along with jail commander Captain Scott Jones (also rumored to be a candidate for sheriff) have been much more open with the press and the public.

Sure, law-enforcement agencies don’t like reporters poking around in their business, ever. But McGinness gave an interview to SN&R contributor Anthony Pignataro a few weeks back. His predecessor, Blanas, would never deign to talk to us in person.

Now McGinness wants out, and the old guard wants to be back in power. And Bites feels another time-off request coming on.